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The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


November 19, 2015

Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?

Em_trade_transportation

The Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met on October 6 at the Jacksonville Branch to discuss economic conditions in the industry. According to a majority of council members, transportation activity has been affected by slowing of exports resulting from tepid global demand, a stronger dollar, and increased inventory levels. Although the European economy appeared to be doing better, the slowdown in China was having an impact on every key global market.

Council members reported seeing growth in inventory-to-sales, which reduced customers' needs for transportation services, and most members perceived the extra inventory as a result of slower sales rather than from overpurchasing or hedging against future price increases.

Employment and labor markets pose continuing challenges
Finding appropriate labor in logistics at all levels continues to be a challenge. Issues negatively affecting recruiting include failing substance abuse tests, experience and education gaps, and difficulty attracting talented youth into the sector. As these issues continue, domestic trucker and qualified mechanic availability remains a concern.

Costs, prices paint a mixed picture
Driver shortages continued to plague the industry, and persistent increases in driver pay have not alleviated the problem. Demand for talent has been pushing wages up for professional levels as well. However, some reported different types of pressure that are causing turnover and recruitment challenges. For example, younger workers expect flexibility, access to technology, and scheduling autonomy, conditions that are difficult to accommodate in businesses that require a specific work schedule.

Declines in fuel costs were reportedly keeping overall nonlabor costs steady by offsetting increases in other input costs. Increases in insurance premiums and an uptick in equipment costs were examples of upward pressure on costs. Congestion at West Coast ports was cited as a cause for an increase in nonproductive operating costs.

Regarding pricing power, rail continued to see strong pricing power as capacity remains tight across other modes of transportation. For others, the softening of the economy has dampened the ability to raise prices. Therefore, pricing power is limited, and increases engender considerable customer pushback. The majority of council members, however, expect to be able to increase rates one year out and beyond, though opportunities could become limited if the economy does not continue to improve and fuel prices do not rebound.

International trade plays a regional role
The appreciation of the dollar has continued to exert downward pressure on exports. The economic slowdown in China, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America (specifically, the recession in Brazil and ongoing economic turmoil in Venezuela) is substantially affecting air trade. However, these markets have not had a material impact on some transportation businesses such as rail since exports' direct exposure to the Chinese economy is limited.

Over the horizon...
Although the overall message from this council meeting was one of decelerating activity, the majority of council members anticipate the same level of growth during the next three to six months, and they expect the same or higher level of activity during the next two to three years.

Topping the list of challenges for the industry down the road are the lack of drivers, finding and retaining quality/qualified labor, and a tighter regulatory environment, which may exacerbate the driver shortage in the coming years. Council members said long-term strategic planning and capital investments in ports and highway infrastructure will be necessary to continue to meet demand.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

September 17, 2015

Southeast Manufacturing Slows in August

Em_sp_manufacturing

Southeast manufacturing activity had been fairly sturdy this year, according to the Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI). The PMI averaged a healthy 56.2 reading from January through July and, with the exception of one subpar month, new orders and production levels had been robust. However, the latest report indicated that factories pumped the brakes in August. According to the August report, new orders and production both slowed significantly.

The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the region. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which examines the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. An index reading above 50 indicates that activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates that activity is contracting.

The overall PMI declined 5.5 points from July and now stands at 48.8 (see the chart). The August report marks the first month the overall index has been below the 50-point threshold since November 2014. The most disconcerting aspects of the report centered on the month-over-month declines in the new orders, production, and employment subindexes.

  • The new orders subindex fell 7.1 points from July to a reading of 49.1.
  • The production subindex dropped 15.2 points from the previous month to a reading of 49.1.
  • The employment subindex declined 6.3 points to a reading of 50.0, which indicates no change in employment levels at Southeast factories.
  • The supplier deliveries subindex increased 3.6 points to 50.9.
  • The finished inventory subindex decreased 2.7 points to 44.6.
  • The commodity prices subindex fell 10.7 points and now reads 34.8.

Southeast-purchasing-managers

On its own, the fall in the Southeast PMI is nothing to get too worked up about. Historically, the Southeast PMI subindexes are prone to volatile month-over-month fluctuations. Still, there are other factors to consider. For instance, the August national PMI index fell to its lowest reading in more than two years, and the August employment report indicated that the U.S. economy shed 17,000 manufacturing jobs. It's also possible, if not probable, that the strong U.S. dollar coupled with weak global demand is dragging down U.S. exports and reducing demand from domestic manufacturers.

No matter the cause, other aspects of the Southeast and national economy appear strong. We'll be monitoring the developments and hoping for some acceleration in the near future.

By Troy Balthrop, senior analyst with the Regional Economic Information Network at the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

August 20, 2015

It's Mostly Sunny in Florida

20130910-0498-jacksonville
Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Kendrick Disch

In a February SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we reported that our contacts' optimism in late 2014 had carried into the new year. Since then, the Regional Economic Information Network team at the Jacksonville Branch has noted an overall improvement in activity and continued positive sentiment.

General business conditions continue firming
Feedback throughout the winter months was quite upbeat. Most contacts felt that an improving economy and labor market were driving growth. In early spring, although feedback remained positive, the messages became more mixed, with some contacts indicating a plateau in growth—most notably, transportation and retail contacts cited challenges from severe weather in various markets. However, bankers noted reasonable momentum with consumers and businesses; real estate contacts saw robust activity with increasing sales and prices at all price points; and homebuilders and commercial construction firms noted much stronger levels of activity. Tourism remained vibrant. Though the consumer inched along, restaurants reported revenue increases that they believe were the result of lower gas prices influencing discretionary spending. As spring progressed, activity continued along an upward, albeit slow, trajectory.

By midsummer, a small number of contacts reported demand was flat, and transportation contacts reported that activity—especially related to the movement of energy-related materials—declined notably since the first quarter. However, a majority of other contacts noted improved activity. Some began to add to capacity to meet increased demand—and, more importantly, anticipated future demand.

Employment largely stable
Throughout the first part of 2015, contacts continued to indicate no major problems in filling jobs outside of information technology (IT), accounting, compliance, and truck drivers. Staffing levels across firms generally remained steady, with some adding to headcount. Those hesitant to add staff turned to contingent labor (such as contract staff or temps) to meet demand. In late spring, we began to hear about increased turnover at many levels, and recruiting and retention appeared to be getting tougher. In central Florida, tourism contacts cited concerns of potential worker shortages as a result of a very low regional unemployment rate and increased construction attracting available labor.

Labor, nonlabor costs and price pressure surfacing
By March, mentions of mounting wage pressures at all job levels surfaced. Though not universally reported, numerous contacts said they were beginning to increase starting salaries, which they noted will eventually ripple through higher levels of staff to maintain internal pay equity and retain talent. Wages increased for engineers, truckers and technicians, and IT specialists. Into the summer, stories of referral and signing bonuses, customized perks, and other benefits enhancements for both recruitment and retention became more common.

Feedback on health care costs continued to be mixed. Health care costs for most increased at a pace greater than overall inflation, though companies continued to try to minimize the increases by changing plan designs or by sharing more of the cost with employees.

Overall, concerns about nonlabor costs were muted. Some mentioned lower energy and fuel costs have offset increases in other input costs.

The ability to raise prices varied among industries. However, a number of contacts indicated pricing power had improved, though the magnitude of price increases was limited. Generally, though, margins were edging up.

Credit, investment remain available
Throughout the first half of the year, credit was readily available and banking contacts reported increased activity. Many companies, especially small businesses, continued to deleverage even in the low interest rate environment, and many larger firms reported funding investments internally. Lenders reported increases in mortgage refinances as rates dipped, and they noted improved home equity levels. Auto lending was described as extremely strong.

Almost without exception, retail contacts noted expansion activity and further growth plans, all the result of expectations for stronger consumer spending. Real estate agents indicated that appraisal issues improved, and buyers, even the self-employed, generally faced little trouble financing home purchases. Stories regarding business investment were mixed between outlays for deferred projects and spending for new demand. This year, it's become clear that there is less hesitation about investment.

Business outlook mostly bright
Though we heard a couple of references to a cloudier outlook during the next two to three years as we approach another presidential election, collectively—and as recently as July—most REIN contacts and board members were as positive about current activity and future expectations as we have seen since the recession.

What's is in store for Florida in the second half of the year? Stay tuned.

By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both of the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

August 4, 2015

Auto Manufacturing an Economic Boon for Tennessee

Making cars has been giving an economic boost to the Volunteer State since the early 1980s, when Nissan built the state's first large-scale auto manufacturing plant in Smyrna. General Motors followed by establishing a plant in Spring Hill in 1990. The latest automaker to set up camp in Tennessee is Volkswagen, which opened its plant in Chattanooga in 2011. About a year ago, Volkswagen announced plans for an expansion at its Chattanooga facility. The Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) at the University of Tennessee recently released a report detailing the economic impact of the Volkswagen expansion, which, needless to say, should be significant.

2012_volkswagen_chattanooga
Image copyright Volkswagen of America Inc.

The purpose of the Volkswagen plant expansion is to manufacture a new midsize SUV for the U.S. market. State and local governments offered incentives of nearly $300 million to entice Volkswagen to build its new SUV in Chattanooga and, according to the CBER report, the state should receive a high return on its investment. The expansion will add more than 500,000 square feet to the facility and an additional 1,800 employees. Tied to the expansion, Volkswagen plans to establish the North American Engineering and Planning Center in Chattanooga, which will create 200 jobs. The plant expansion and the R&D center together will create 2,000 new jobs, which will nearly double Volkswagen's current Chattanooga workforce of 2,358. These numbers are impressive, but they only scratch the surface of the estimated overall impact.

Chattanooga_map

The CBER report breaks down the overall impact of the plant expansion into two phases: the construction phase and the operations phase. The CBER projects the construction phase alone to be quite lucrative for residents of the state. It estimates that the construction and development stage will create 5,391 full-time jobs for a year. The report also anticipates the generation of $217 million in new income during that year for Tennesseans. State and local municipalities stand to gain a one-time increase in tax revenues equal to $20.5 million. During the operations phase (after the plant is fully operational), the plant is expected to create 9,799 new full-time permanent jobs in the state. These jobs would not only include new Volkswagen employees but also the jobs created at the numerous Volkswagen suppliers located in Tennessee.

New income for Tennesseans will be in the neighborhood of $372.6 million, according to CBER estimates. The income generated during the construction phase may be direct or indirect income. (An example of indirect income would be the hiring of construction workers who are employed by Tennessee construction firms, which then spend their earnings on goods such as food or clothing in the state.) The report estimates that every dollar spent on construction of the plant will result in 47 cents of income for Tennessee. (An example of direct income would be the salaries Volkswagen pays its new employees, and estimates indicate that Volkswagen will pay $100.9 million in salaries to its new employees.) In addition, Volkswagen plans to purchase many inputs directly from Tennessee suppliers, so every dollar spent during the operations phase is estimated to lead to $3.69 of income for Tennesseans.

There are also intangible benefits to consider, such as an increase in charitable giving as incomes rise. The multiplying effects of the plant expansion will touch many aspects of not only Tennessee's economy but also the entire regional economy. It will be interesting to watch as auto manufacturing continues to put down roots in the Southeast. Hopefully, the economic benefits are just beginning to rev their engines.

By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

November 19, 2015

Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?

Em_trade_transportation

The Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met on October 6 at the Jacksonville Branch to discuss economic conditions in the industry. According to a majority of council members, transportation activity has been affected by slowing of exports resulting from tepid global demand, a stronger dollar, and increased inventory levels. Although the European economy appeared to be doing better, the slowdown in China was having an impact on every key global market.

Council members reported seeing growth in inventory-to-sales, which reduced customers' needs for transportation services, and most members perceived the extra inventory as a result of slower sales rather than from overpurchasing or hedging against future price increases.

Employment and labor markets pose continuing challenges
Finding appropriate labor in logistics at all levels continues to be a challenge. Issues negatively affecting recruiting include failing substance abuse tests, experience and education gaps, and difficulty attracting talented youth into the sector. As these issues continue, domestic trucker and qualified mechanic availability remains a concern.

Costs, prices paint a mixed picture
Driver shortages continued to plague the industry, and persistent increases in driver pay have not alleviated the problem. Demand for talent has been pushing wages up for professional levels as well. However, some reported different types of pressure that are causing turnover and recruitment challenges. For example, younger workers expect flexibility, access to technology, and scheduling autonomy, conditions that are difficult to accommodate in businesses that require a specific work schedule.

Declines in fuel costs were reportedly keeping overall nonlabor costs steady by offsetting increases in other input costs. Increases in insurance premiums and an uptick in equipment costs were examples of upward pressure on costs. Congestion at West Coast ports was cited as a cause for an increase in nonproductive operating costs.

Regarding pricing power, rail continued to see strong pricing power as capacity remains tight across other modes of transportation. For others, the softening of the economy has dampened the ability to raise prices. Therefore, pricing power is limited, and increases engender considerable customer pushback. The majority of council members, however, expect to be able to increase rates one year out and beyond, though opportunities could become limited if the economy does not continue to improve and fuel prices do not rebound.

International trade plays a regional role
The appreciation of the dollar has continued to exert downward pressure on exports. The economic slowdown in China, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America (specifically, the recession in Brazil and ongoing economic turmoil in Venezuela) is substantially affecting air trade. However, these markets have not had a material impact on some transportation businesses such as rail since exports' direct exposure to the Chinese economy is limited.

Over the horizon...
Although the overall message from this council meeting was one of decelerating activity, the majority of council members anticipate the same level of growth during the next three to six months, and they expect the same or higher level of activity during the next two to three years.

Topping the list of challenges for the industry down the road are the lack of drivers, finding and retaining quality/qualified labor, and a tighter regulatory environment, which may exacerbate the driver shortage in the coming years. Council members said long-term strategic planning and capital investments in ports and highway infrastructure will be necessary to continue to meet demand.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

September 17, 2015

Southeast Manufacturing Slows in August

Em_sp_manufacturing

Southeast manufacturing activity had been fairly sturdy this year, according to the Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI). The PMI averaged a healthy 56.2 reading from January through July and, with the exception of one subpar month, new orders and production levels had been robust. However, the latest report indicated that factories pumped the brakes in August. According to the August report, new orders and production both slowed significantly.

The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the region. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which examines the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. An index reading above 50 indicates that activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates that activity is contracting.

The overall PMI declined 5.5 points from July and now stands at 48.8 (see the chart). The August report marks the first month the overall index has been below the 50-point threshold since November 2014. The most disconcerting aspects of the report centered on the month-over-month declines in the new orders, production, and employment subindexes.

  • The new orders subindex fell 7.1 points from July to a reading of 49.1.
  • The production subindex dropped 15.2 points from the previous month to a reading of 49.1.
  • The employment subindex declined 6.3 points to a reading of 50.0, which indicates no change in employment levels at Southeast factories.
  • The supplier deliveries subindex increased 3.6 points to 50.9.
  • The finished inventory subindex decreased 2.7 points to 44.6.
  • The commodity prices subindex fell 10.7 points and now reads 34.8.

Southeast-purchasing-managers

On its own, the fall in the Southeast PMI is nothing to get too worked up about. Historically, the Southeast PMI subindexes are prone to volatile month-over-month fluctuations. Still, there are other factors to consider. For instance, the August national PMI index fell to its lowest reading in more than two years, and the August employment report indicated that the U.S. economy shed 17,000 manufacturing jobs. It's also possible, if not probable, that the strong U.S. dollar coupled with weak global demand is dragging down U.S. exports and reducing demand from domestic manufacturers.

No matter the cause, other aspects of the Southeast and national economy appear strong. We'll be monitoring the developments and hoping for some acceleration in the near future.

By Troy Balthrop, senior analyst with the Regional Economic Information Network at the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

August 20, 2015

It's Mostly Sunny in Florida

20130910-0498-jacksonville
Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Kendrick Disch

In a February SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we reported that our contacts' optimism in late 2014 had carried into the new year. Since then, the Regional Economic Information Network team at the Jacksonville Branch has noted an overall improvement in activity and continued positive sentiment.

General business conditions continue firming
Feedback throughout the winter months was quite upbeat. Most contacts felt that an improving economy and labor market were driving growth. In early spring, although feedback remained positive, the messages became more mixed, with some contacts indicating a plateau in growth—most notably, transportation and retail contacts cited challenges from severe weather in various markets. However, bankers noted reasonable momentum with consumers and businesses; real estate contacts saw robust activity with increasing sales and prices at all price points; and homebuilders and commercial construction firms noted much stronger levels of activity. Tourism remained vibrant. Though the consumer inched along, restaurants reported revenue increases that they believe were the result of lower gas prices influencing discretionary spending. As spring progressed, activity continued along an upward, albeit slow, trajectory.

By midsummer, a small number of contacts reported demand was flat, and transportation contacts reported that activity—especially related to the movement of energy-related materials—declined notably since the first quarter. However, a majority of other contacts noted improved activity. Some began to add to capacity to meet increased demand—and, more importantly, anticipated future demand.

Employment largely stable
Throughout the first part of 2015, contacts continued to indicate no major problems in filling jobs outside of information technology (IT), accounting, compliance, and truck drivers. Staffing levels across firms generally remained steady, with some adding to headcount. Those hesitant to add staff turned to contingent labor (such as contract staff or temps) to meet demand. In late spring, we began to hear about increased turnover at many levels, and recruiting and retention appeared to be getting tougher. In central Florida, tourism contacts cited concerns of potential worker shortages as a result of a very low regional unemployment rate and increased construction attracting available labor.

Labor, nonlabor costs and price pressure surfacing
By March, mentions of mounting wage pressures at all job levels surfaced. Though not universally reported, numerous contacts said they were beginning to increase starting salaries, which they noted will eventually ripple through higher levels of staff to maintain internal pay equity and retain talent. Wages increased for engineers, truckers and technicians, and IT specialists. Into the summer, stories of referral and signing bonuses, customized perks, and other benefits enhancements for both recruitment and retention became more common.

Feedback on health care costs continued to be mixed. Health care costs for most increased at a pace greater than overall inflation, though companies continued to try to minimize the increases by changing plan designs or by sharing more of the cost with employees.

Overall, concerns about nonlabor costs were muted. Some mentioned lower energy and fuel costs have offset increases in other input costs.

The ability to raise prices varied among industries. However, a number of contacts indicated pricing power had improved, though the magnitude of price increases was limited. Generally, though, margins were edging up.

Credit, investment remain available
Throughout the first half of the year, credit was readily available and banking contacts reported increased activity. Many companies, especially small businesses, continued to deleverage even in the low interest rate environment, and many larger firms reported funding investments internally. Lenders reported increases in mortgage refinances as rates dipped, and they noted improved home equity levels. Auto lending was described as extremely strong.

Almost without exception, retail contacts noted expansion activity and further growth plans, all the result of expectations for stronger consumer spending. Real estate agents indicated that appraisal issues improved, and buyers, even the self-employed, generally faced little trouble financing home purchases. Stories regarding business investment were mixed between outlays for deferred projects and spending for new demand. This year, it's become clear that there is less hesitation about investment.

Business outlook mostly bright
Though we heard a couple of references to a cloudier outlook during the next two to three years as we approach another presidential election, collectively—and as recently as July—most REIN contacts and board members were as positive about current activity and future expectations as we have seen since the recession.

What's is in store for Florida in the second half of the year? Stay tuned.

By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both of the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

August 4, 2015

Auto Manufacturing an Economic Boon for Tennessee

Making cars has been giving an economic boost to the Volunteer State since the early 1980s, when Nissan built the state's first large-scale auto manufacturing plant in Smyrna. General Motors followed by establishing a plant in Spring Hill in 1990. The latest automaker to set up camp in Tennessee is Volkswagen, which opened its plant in Chattanooga in 2011. About a year ago, Volkswagen announced plans for an expansion at its Chattanooga facility. The Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) at the University of Tennessee recently released a report detailing the economic impact of the Volkswagen expansion, which, needless to say, should be significant.

2012_volkswagen_chattanooga
Image copyright Volkswagen of America Inc.

The purpose of the Volkswagen plant expansion is to manufacture a new midsize SUV for the U.S. market. State and local governments offered incentives of nearly $300 million to entice Volkswagen to build its new SUV in Chattanooga and, according to the CBER report, the state should receive a high return on its investment. The expansion will add more than 500,000 square feet to the facility and an additional 1,800 employees. Tied to the expansion, Volkswagen plans to establish the North American Engineering and Planning Center in Chattanooga, which will create 200 jobs. The plant expansion and the R&D center together will create 2,000 new jobs, which will nearly double Volkswagen's current Chattanooga workforce of 2,358. These numbers are impressive, but they only scratch the surface of the estimated overall impact.

Chattanooga_map

The CBER report breaks down the overall impact of the plant expansion into two phases: the construction phase and the operations phase. The CBER projects the construction phase alone to be quite lucrative for residents of the state. It estimates that the construction and development stage will create 5,391 full-time jobs for a year. The report also anticipates the generation of $217 million in new income during that year for Tennesseans. State and local municipalities stand to gain a one-time increase in tax revenues equal to $20.5 million. During the operations phase (after the plant is fully operational), the plant is expected to create 9,799 new full-time permanent jobs in the state. These jobs would not only include new Volkswagen employees but also the jobs created at the numerous Volkswagen suppliers located in Tennessee.

New income for Tennesseans will be in the neighborhood of $372.6 million, according to CBER estimates. The income generated during the construction phase may be direct or indirect income. (An example of indirect income would be the hiring of construction workers who are employed by Tennessee construction firms, which then spend their earnings on goods such as food or clothing in the state.) The report estimates that every dollar spent on construction of the plant will result in 47 cents of income for Tennessee. (An example of direct income would be the salaries Volkswagen pays its new employees, and estimates indicate that Volkswagen will pay $100.9 million in salaries to its new employees.) In addition, Volkswagen plans to purchase many inputs directly from Tennessee suppliers, so every dollar spent during the operations phase is estimated to lead to $3.69 of income for Tennesseans.

There are also intangible benefits to consider, such as an increase in charitable giving as incomes rise. The multiplying effects of the plant expansion will touch many aspects of not only Tennessee's economy but also the entire regional economy. It will be interesting to watch as auto manufacturing continues to put down roots in the Southeast. Hopefully, the economic benefits are just beginning to rev their engines.

By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch